The Virginia Plan vs. The New Jersey Plan: Battlegrounds for a New Constitution

Topics: Politics

As the drafting of the Constitution of the United States drew near, competing visions of national governance evolved among the states. The Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, which represented opposing views on federalism, state sovereignty, and the relative power of big and small states, were at the center of this discussion. The Constitution as we know it now owes much to the competition between these two ideas.

James Madison and Edmund Randolph’s Virginia Plan, offered at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, advocated for bigger, more populous states.

It proposed a two-house legislature (a Congress) with proportional representation determined by either population or tax revenue. This proposal would provide greater influence in the legislature to the states with larger populations.

The Virginia Plan proposed a strong central government that could act “in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent” and nullify state laws that were in conflict with federal statutes. Since the Articles of Confederation had delegated a great deal of authority to the many states, this proposal represented a radical change.

In contrast, William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan defended the rights of smaller states. This proposal favored a Congress with just one chamber, where each state would have the same number of votes regardless of its size or population. This concept was quite similar to the Confederation Congress in that it delegated most federal authority to the individual states.

The New Jersey Plan also advocated for a smaller, more effective federal government. It could impose taxes and control trade, but it wouldn’t significantly impact state sovereignty.

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This set up was a response to the Virginia Plan, which gave the federal government sweeping new powers.

These competing proposals sparked heated discussion at the Constitutional Convention, which finally resulted in a middle ground known as “The Great Compromise” or “the Connecticut Compromise.” This deal was a brilliant combination of ideas from both proposals. It called for a two-house Congress, with the Senate mirroring the New Jersey Plan in that each state would have two senators to ensure fair representation, and the House mirroring the Virginia Plan in that representation there would be determined by population.

This agreement laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. Congress by addressing the needs of both big and small states, as well as the tension between strong national authority and state autonomy.

The competing interests and identities of the young country were mirrored in the conflict between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. They were able to work out their differences and come to an agreement, highlighting the value of discussion and the need for a governing system that respects and values diversity. E Pluribus Unum, Latin for “Out of Many, One,” lies at the foundation of the American democratic system, and the ethos it embodies, respectful discussion, continues to this day.

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The Virginia Plan vs. The New Jersey Plan: Battlegrounds for a New Constitution. (2023, Jun 19). Retrieved from

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